Beyond “Write how you talk”: Finding your voice as a writer
One of the most common questions we receive as we evaluate writers at B/R is: “What’s the best way to find your own voice while writing for an online audience?”
It’s a great question, especially because our evaluations don’t take into consideration subjective factors such as passion, humor and the uniqueness of your voice. We leave those judgments to assignment editors, who know your work much more intimately than an evaluator does. But what happens when a writer’s not familiar with his or her own voice? Is it simply a matter of transferring your personality to the page?
The New Yorker’s Louis Menand doesn’t think so.
Toward the end of his 2004 review of the book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” he writes, “There are writers loved for their humor who are not funny people, and writers admired for their eloquence who swallow their words, never look you in the eye, and can’t seem to finish a sentence.”
Menand makes a convincing (if not obvious) case that speech and writing are very different animals. Speech is at its most natural-sounding when it’s off the cuff, affected by subtle facial and bodily movements as well as vocal inflection. But it often takes unnerving amounts of trial and error to achieve anything near the same quality in your text.
And while a common gobbet of wisdom passed among writers—including F. Scott Fitzgerald—is to “write for the ear,” Menand points out that this technique won’t necessarily help you cultivate your voice:
Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a depressing experience. When you write, you’re trying to transpose what you’re thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music.
In other words, conversational writing involves much more effort and reflection than does having an actual conversation. Thinking your writing has a “voice” is misleading if you expect it to come as spontaneously as the words from your mouth. Perhaps we should start calling it one’s authorial “reputation” instead.
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